American performance comic Gallagher (Leo Anthony Gallagher Jr.) died in November 2022 at the age of 76. I found his manic and mischievous sense of humour entertaining, especially that “gotcha” look on his face when he astounded the audience with one of his outrageous tricks.
While I was planning a cover for this book, I decided that his satisfied, smartass expression would perfectly suit a major Irish trickster-teacher whose humiliating education of fictionalised real-life historical personages features in the book. That is the Giolla Deacair (Difficult Servant), the demi-god Manannán in disguise, who an unnamed 16th-century author mortalised in the short saga called “The Narrow-striped Kern”, which was a staple in the repertoires of Irish and Scottish storytellers well into the 19th century.
I asked Irish-French artist Fiona Dowling to look at Gallagher’s videos on YouTube and capture that smirk for the cover, along with an illustration of the Giolla/Kern’s most ambitious trick: the hare, hound, young man, young woman running up into a cloud and getting into mischief. She caught it brilliantly.
Two tricks that I learned as a child are in the story.
The Kern placed three straws on the palm of his hand.
“I will blow the middle straw off my hand without moving the other two.”
“Let’s see you do that,” said O’Kelly.
The Kern set the tips of two fingers on the two outer straws and blew the middle one off.
“And there you have the trick,” said the Kern.
“By my conscience, that wasn’t a bad trick,” said O’Kelly.
“No credit to the man who did that,” said one of O’Kelly’s soldiers. “Give me half of the five marks, and I’ll do the trick.”
“Do that trick the same way,” said the Kern, “and I’ll give you half of the five marks.”
The soldier placed three straws on the palm of his hand, and he put the tips of two fingers on the two outer straws, but when he blew on the middle straw the tips of his fingers went through the palm of his hand and came out the back of it.
“No, no, man,” said the narrow-striped conjuror. “That was clumsy, and it’s not the way I did it. But since you lost the money, I’ll mend the damage.”
The conjuror rubbed a healing herb on the man’s hand until it was fully restored.
“Now, Tadg O’Kelly,” said the conjuror. “Give me another five marks and I’ll show you another trick.”
“What trick is that?”
“I can wag one of my ears without moving the other one.”
The trickster took one of his ears in his hand and wagged it.
“That was indeed a good trick,” said O’Kelly.
“No credit to you,” said the same soldier. “With any luck I’ll do that trick.”
“You failed with the other one,” said the Narrow-striped Kern. “Let’s see you try this one.”
The soldier succeeded in wagging his ear, but it came off in his hand.
“That was clumsy of your soldier, O’Kelly,” said the conjuror, “but I’ll mend him, and for another five marks I’ll show you another trick.”
(That’s the one illustrated in Fiona’s cover design.)